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Irresistible reading: a library-classroom partnership.

Sometime between fifth and seventh grade, it begins. Throughout the teen years, extracurriculars and responsibilities pile up, and students find themselves with less and less time for pleasure reading. When they do browse the library shelves, they often have a hard time finding something that will appeal to their changing interests. Many lose motivation to read anything beyond required school reading.

As a librarian and a middle school English teacher, we've heard it again and again: Sighs of, "I used to read all the time, but now it seems like I hardly ever get the chance to read anything fun." So we decided to take action. Armed with irresistible, hand-picked young adult novels, we set out to win them back to the world of fiction through literature circles.

In this article, we will share the fruits of our experience with lit circles: Lessons learned, particularly useful tools, unexpected benefits, and a rationale for using lit circles to reach pre-teen and teen readers.

The basic formula for lit circles is straightforward: Select several books, perhaps linked by a common theme; allow readers to browse these choices and rank their favorites; group students with others reading the same book; form small groups to read and discuss.

Although the formula is simple, the results can be extraordinary. When students are given real choices about their guided reading and when the texts they choose from have authentic relevance to their lives, the stage is set for transformational experiences.

Real choices are absent from many classroom settings, which often rely heavily on whole-class readings of the classics. While lit circles can include classic texts, they are particularly valuable as a "way in" for contemporary YA lit--showing educators and students that it is possible to think deeply and have meaningful conversations about these engaging, current stories. Grouping readers by interest also acknowledges the range of tastes and identities in any group of teens.

Selecting independent reading material is an essential skill for establishing an identity as a reader. Some students get stuck in a particular genre or with a familiar author; it can be difficult to nudge them out of their comfort zone. Young adult readers must learn to navigate various kinds of stories--those that serve as mirrors, reflecting aspects of their experiences, and those that open windows into experiences very different from their own. Lit circles provide an opportunity to guide young readers through the process of selecting engaging, challenging texts that can both confirm and broaden their evolving perspectives.


We are a librarian and an English teacher at Castilleja School, an independent school for girls in grades six through twelve, located in Palo Alto, California, Serving a population of girls undoubtedly impacts teaching and learning. Particularly in the lower grades, our classrooms are full of avid readers, but we, too, see an erosion of interest in and time for pleasure reading, and a dedication to fighting that phenomenon forges a bond between the library and the English department.

We share the goal of guiding students to become lifelong readers--readers who have a sense of their own taste, but remain open-minded; readers who delve below the surface of texts; readers who use books to start conversations; readers who make connections between books and their lives. We strive to cement an association in the students' minds between the library and the classroom; students (and teachers!) should use the library and its resources as an extension of the classroom.

For us, lit circles provided an excellent opportunity to deepen the trust and partnership between the library team and the English teachers. The librarians were able to provide a depth of expertise in top-tier YA lit, while the English teachers tailored their choices to the standards and goals of their curriculum. Contemporary titles sometimes generate controversy; in such cases, librarians provide an important link to American Library Association (ALA) resources in support of intellectual freedom. If and when questions arise, librarians make excellent allies for classroom teachers.


Choose Texts

Give yourself plenty of time to read through potential titles and make your selections. It's surprising how many books won't quite fit your vision; don't be tempted to settle. Creating good matches between books and readers is essential to the success of your program. Here are the criteria that helped us to select successful literature circle books:

First and foremost, keep in mind your target audience. Knowing your readers will help you to select books that will appeal to them; knowing your community will help you to be alert to potential controversy or challenges.

Avoid books that feel too didactic or contrived. Teenagers are especially sensitive to adults telling them what to do or how to live. They're much more likely to absorb a book's messages if the story feels authentic to them.

Because your readers will be discussing sections of the book as they go along, it's important to choose books that will not only hold students' interest, but also drive conversation. Some popular YA novels, while admittedly delightful, may lack the necessary complexity to stimulate discussion.

If you are using lit circles in a school or classroom setting, it's often especially powerful to center your book selection on themes, essential questions, or curricular goals that you have done some work with already.

Each book has to meet these criteria for only some of your readers. The teens who love the gritty action of Ship Breaker may not enjoy the dreamy poetry of Stargirl, but that's fine. If you choose a wide variety of books, all readers should be able to find something that speaks to them.

Communicate with Colleagues, Parents, and Administrators Teenagers have wildly divergent interests, reading abilities, and maturity levels--so some of the books that will appeal to and challenge your readers may raise eyebrows. As preparation, if your choices are questioned, it's useful to communicate your rationale and goals to key stakeholders. Well before you want to implement your program, sit down with your supervisor and explain what lit circles are and why you think they will benefit your readers. Consider sending parents an email or letter listing the book choices and explaining the program. This will be useful for two reasons: It gives you a chance to think through your arguments for doing lit circles and including contemporary YA titles, and it can make others more comfortable to be brought into the loop early on. We've occasionally had a parent suggest that a certain book may not be right for her or his child, but such responses have been rare. Here are some questions you may want to think through:

* How can I enlist the support of my colleagues and supervisors?

* How does this program fit within my overall goals or curriculum? (Why choose lit circles instead of a single novel? Why choose YA lit rather than classics?)

* What is my rationale for including each book on nay list? (This is especially important if some books have mature content--swearing, sexuality, violence, drugs, and so on.)

* Where and how will I obtain copies of the books?

Foster Student Engagement

Imagine simply handing books to students and saying, "Okay, now read part of this, discuss it in small groups, and repeat until you're done." With so little structure, the results are not likely to be impressive. Nor will your lit circles succeed if you maintain an iron grip over every step of the process. Striking the right balance means providing enough guidance to enable readers to engage deeply with their books and one another, while still handing over some control to the teens.

The following suggestions for structure will support rich, student-led discussion:

* Allow each small group to devise its own reading schedule: You might tell students they have to finish the book by a certain date. To give them more structure, you could tell them they need to break the book into a certain number of "chunks" (we usually suggest seven to ten), each due on a certain day. They get to decide how many pages or chapters will be in each chunk. This launches them into discussion and negotiation during their first meeting and allows them to tailor their reading to their own schedules (for example, reading more over the weekend and less on the night half of them have play rehearsal).

* Help them prepare for discussions by doing some reflective writing as they read. We've had students keep reading journals in which they choose passages that strike them (or that have to do with character, theme, or narrative strategy) and respond to those passages. This provides a concrete starting point for small-group discussion.

* Vary the kinds of responses and discussions you expect. Try having two groups come together to discuss their books. Ask students to bring in art, music, or news articles related to their books. Mix creative responses with analytical ones.

* Don't hover over student discussions, but do hold the groups accountable for doing good work. For example, have them turn in notes from their discussion, present to other groups, or work on projects that will be shared with the community.


When we implemented our first round of lit circles in spring 2011, we hoped that students would find the books interesting and appreciate the opportunity for greater independence. But there were several additional benefits we didn't anticipate.

Lit circles helped build students' reading stamina. The books they read during lit circles were impressive in length, averaging about three hundred pages, but the reading was engaging enough that it didn't feel as much like work.

In fact, this program supplied a jolt of energy to the culture of reading among our students. Each student was reading one book, but conversations with classmates piqued interest in the other books. Many students went on to read the other lit circle choices independently later in the year, or to request books "like" the ones they read in class from the library. There was a noticeable uptick in library circulation, and students seemed to have a better sense of what kinds of books they would enjoy.

Lit circles also supported the culture of reading by showing students that it's possible to think critically and analytically about books they read for fun--and that this deeper reading can actually be a thrill.

The success of lit circles proved to be contagious to our colleagues; teachers who saw the effect on students were inspired to try them. For example, our sixth graders study Greek mythology and fairy tales--stories that are frequently reimagined in contemporary YA novels. The sixth grade English teachers decided to follow each of those units with a round of lit circles, showing students how these stories have persisted through time and how authors have envisioned them in different contexts. Outside the English department, colleagues in history and science have been considering using lit circles to provide additional avenues for students to engage with their disciplines.

In the broader sphere of the school community, embarking on lit circles opened up conversations about intellectual freedom and the importance of choice and relevance in our curriculum. We had many conversations with our middle school head about our rationale for lit circles, how we would frame them for students and parents, and why we chose particular books. These candid, respectful conversations strengthened relationships and helped clarify our shared values.


Last year's seventh graders took part in the school's first ever round of lit circles. We asked the students to provide some written feedback on the experience:

"I really liked having the choice to read the book we wanted," one seventh grader reported.

Another wrote, "I loved my book. I thought it was a great read and we were able to dig deep into it and have a lot of fun with it too."

In response to the heavier reading load, one student commented, "We needed to read a lot each night, but it went really fast."

Many of the girls described the way lit circles deepened their reading skills and their relationship with their classmates. One wrote, "The unit was so independent, you were really reading the whole thing yourself with only a few discussions with only two to four other people. I think that I learned to analyze books on my own, and really think about MY ideas that weren't influenced by others."

Another pointed out, "If you read in a big group, not everybody can put their thoughts out there (and a lot of people's thoughts could be different)."

Another wrote, "I was able to get to know the people in my group better, while discussing different points of view on certain aspects of the book." This student summarized the opinion of her peers: "I think that lit circles was fabulous and it should definitely be done again next year."

Lit circles and their philosophical underpinnings--the importance of relevance and choice in reading for teens--have quickly become integral to our school community. While this article describes a particular model for lit circles that has been effective for us, the basic structure of this program could be reproduced in many settings. However lit circles fit into your programming, be sure to offer titles that will appeal to teens with a range of capacities and preferences. We have found a "sweet spot" in the titles that we choose; imagine a Venn diagram with three circles: quality writing, student interest, and curricular aims. Where those three circles overlap, we find the best choices for lit circle reading. We hope you'll find your own sweet spot and enjoy sharing books with young readers in a new way. As we continue to revise and expand our program, we would love to hear about your experiences.


Seventh Grade Theme of Conformity

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by e. lockhart

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Matched by Ally Condie

Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Uglies by Scott Westerfdd

Seventh Grade Theme of Mirrors and Windows

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel Fattah

House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Older Students Theme of Dealing with Loss

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Jole Seroff serves as director of library and information services at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. This is her eighth year as a teen services librarian. Visit her online at

Katie Sauvain teaches middle school English at Castilleja School. In the summers, she works on a master's degree in English literature at the Bread Loaf School of English. Sauvain blogs at http://


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Author:Sauvain, Katie; Seroff, Jole
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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